THE BASIC problem of parapsychology is relatively simple when compared with
problems in politics or aesthetics. Either it is possible for at least some
people to communicate by extrasensory perception, or else ESP does not and
cannot exist because the underlying processes necessary for its occurrence do
not exist. A great deal of experimental work has failed to provide a clear case
for the existence of ESP, but at least two facts have been established: first,
subjects when trying to guess card symbols have obtained scores that cannot be
attributed to chance; second, some of those taking part in ESP experiments have
cheated to produce high scores.
The first fact cannot be disputed. Results such as those obtained by Hubert
Pearce or by Riess's high-scoring subject need no statistical analysis for the
purpose of establishing that something was happening during the experiments
other than pure guesswork. The second fact that those taking part in experiments
sometimes cheat is known from admissions of trickery. The first 2 major
experiments in Great Britain on the Creery sisters and on Smith and Blackburn in
1882, involved 8 subjects, 7 of whom admitted to cheating, and the other did
cheat according to his partner in the act. The last major investigation in Great
Britain, on the Welsh schoolboys in 1955-1957, involved 2 subjects, both of whom
admitted to cheating after being caught in the act. It would be remarkable if
such attempts to assist the natural course of events ceased altogether in
parapsychology between the years 1882 and 1956. In fact, close examination of
the most spectacular findings in parapsychology invariably points to some form
of trickery as an alternative to ESP. To the skeptic, psychical research seems
to have been as much a history of the manner in which the artful can mislead the
innocent as it is a reflection of any more esoteric activity.
Is ESP a Fraud?
Cheating in one form or another is one of the commonest of human activities. If
it never occurred, much of the expense and complication of modern life would be
avoided. The paper work involved in accounting and auditing - tickets, bills,
counterfoils, invoices - would no longer be necessary. Games, examinations,
competitions, and numerous such activities would be simplified. On the other
hand, it is unlikely that more than a small number of experiments on ESP are
affected by cheating, since the investigator does his best to ensure that his
subjects cannot cheat and, no doubt, usually succeeds. The majority of
investigators are likely to have sufficient faith in the reality of ESP to
believe that it will manifest itself without outside aid. It may then seem
strange to the reader that so much space has been given here to the matter of
trickery. Why in the case of each of the so-called conclusive experiments should
trickery invariably emerge as a likely alternative to ESP?
One reason is that an experiment is not classified as conclusive unless the
known causes of experimental error have been eliminated in its design. If a
trick is used in an experiment, it might be expected to produce an impressive
result having large odds against arising by chance and, if the experiment is of
the "conclusive" category, trickery would be the only alternative explanation to
ESP. Thus, the process by which conclusive experiments are weeded out will also
bring to light experiments in which a trick has been used.
A trick also involves a trickster. The following remarks made by George R. Price
are very relevant.
The wise procedure, when we seek to evaluate probability of fraud, is to try to
ignore all vague, psychological criteria and base our reasoning (i) on such
evidence as would impress a court and (ii) on purely statistical considerations.
And here we must recognise that we usually make a certain gross statistical
error. When we consider the possibility of fraud, almost invariably we think of
particular individuals and ask ourselves whether it is possible that this
particular man, this Professor X, could be dishonest. The probability seems
small, but the procedure is incorrect. The correct procedure is to consider that
we very likely would not have heard of Professor X at all except for his psychic
findings. Accordingly, the probability of interest to us is the probability of
there having been anywhere in the world, among its more than 2 billion
inhabitants, a few people with the desire and ability to produce false evidence
for the supernatural.
 G. R. Price, Science (1955), p. 363.
There is one psychological criterion, however, that even a court of law would
regard as impressive. That is the question of motive. Why should people go to
all the trouble of entering into complicated conspiracies merely to deceive
their fellows? It should first be noted that there are many cases of known
trickery in science where the motive is not clear. The Piltdown skull discovered
in 1912 that at first appeared to be an important piece of evidence in the
history of man's development involved the trickster in a lot of work for little
However, in the case of many individuals acting as subjects in parapsychology
there is often a very clear motive. Mediums at one time in the United States
were said to constitute the second highest paid profession open to women, and
where monetary gain is not involved, there may be the desire to impress or to
gain prestige. In the case of each of the major experimental investigations to
which a chapter has been given in this book, there is a possible monetary or
prestige motive for trickery.
In the early 1930's at Duke University, during the Depression, students who
acted as subjects in ESP experiments were paid an hourly wage for their
services. If Pearce was paid to act as a subject, he had every incentive to
continue in that capacity. The Pratt-Woodruff experiment was a continuation of
work started by Woodruff constituting part of the requirement for a higher
degree. The Soal-Goldney experiment gained
Soal his Doctorate of Science at
London University. Would that degree have been given for a series of negative
experiments? Mrs. Stewart was paid for her services. The Jones boys earned large
rewards for high scores.
Parapsychologists are themselves to blame for the emphasis that has to be placed
on cheating when considering their work. In science generally it is likely that,
at times, investigators indulge in underhanded activities, but their experiments
are shown up when other scientists fail to confirm their result. In such cases
it may not be necessary to hold a long post-mortem on the earlier experiment; it
is just forgotten. However, parapsychologists - or at least some of the more
vociferous of them - in denying the necessity to confirm experiments by
repetition, make it essential to examine every experiment in detail in order to
ensure that the result could not have been caused by cheating.
It is often difficult to discuss the possibility of cheating objectively.
Parapsychologists tend to present their critics with a fait accompli. A similar
situation would arise in orthodox science if a chemist reported an experimental
result that contradicted all the previous research findings and theories of his
fellow chemists, together with the statement "Either this finding must be
accepted as valid or else you must accuse me of being a cheat and a liar. Do you
accept it?" In such circumstances, orthodox chemists might feel diffident about
openly expressing their doubts. They might, however, repeat the experiment to
see whether they got the same result. If they failed to confirm his result, they
would not go into a long discussion as to whether the original investigator was
a liar or a cheat. They would just take with a grain of salt any further
experimental reports from the same source.
The trickster has often been assisted by the investigator's overwhelming
confidence in his ability to detect trickery. Observers, however careful, must
be prepared to make mistakes. But in psychical research many of the
investigators have considered themselves infallible. Soal claimed that boys of
the caliber of Glyn and Ieuan could never hope to deceive him.
If a trick is used in an experiment, this fact might be expected to make itself
apparent in the course of further research. But parapsychologists have erected a
system that aids the trickster and at the same time preserves experimental
Survival Characteristics of ESP
Scientists in general have been little influenced by philosophers who strive to
inform them about the methodology and logic of their subject. Science has a
basic methodological principle that is self-generating. It was not formulated by
anybody, but it has the same empirical basis and underlying logic as the
principle of natural selection in evolution. Investigators are continually
producing reports of their experimental findings, which may be classified, for
convenience, as good and bad. The good ones survive because they are confirmed
in further research. The bad ones are forgotten because they cannot be
confirmed. Science advances through a process of natural selection. New findings
become targets for criticism, and a finding must be confirmed by critics under
their own experimental conditions; it then soon becomes clear when it is to be
If anyone invents a pseudoscience in which this principle ceases to operate, the
result soon becomes apparent, for the new "science" fails to have predictive
value and leads to more and more findings and theories that are incompatible
with orthodox science. This is what has happened in parapsychology. When critics
fail to confirm ESP, this is not accepted as a reason for dropping the subject;
on the contrary, belief in the reality of ESP is so strong that the principle of
repeatability has been rejected or rendered impotent by the invoking of new
processes which are claimed as subsidiary characteristics of the phenomenon.
Thus, given a high-scoring subject, it would in the normal course of events be
only a matter of time before every critic could be silenced, but these subjects
cease to score high when tested by critics. Extrasensory perception only
manifests itself before uncritical investigators. Again,
Rhine and Pratt have
observed, "Another major difficulty can be seen in the fact that some
experimenters after a period of earlier success in obtaining extra-chance
results in psi experiments have proved less effective in their later efforts. In
such instances something apparently has been lost that was once a potent factor.
The element most likely to change under prolonged testing would seem to be the
quality of infectious enthusiasm that accompanies the initial discoveries of the
research worker. Those who never succeed at all may, of course, be suspected of
not ever having felt such contagious or communicable interest as would help to
create a favorable test environment for their subjects." In other words,
experimenters fail to confirm their own results. And a further subsidiary
characteristic emerges: ESP is affected by the mental state of the person
 Rhine and Pratt, Parapsychology, p. 132.
If fresh characteristics are postulated in this manner, it is possible to
survive almost any form of criticism. An experimental result cannot be confirmed
or refuted since ESP does not operate in front of critics. After tightening up
his experimental conditions, an investigator cannot disclaim the findings of his
earlier work; failure in later work reveals that he has lost his enthusiasm.
Since the chief characteristic of the exploratory stage, according to the
statement of Rhine and Pratt given on pages 22-23, is that the investigator
carries out his work "without being burdened with too much precautionary
concern." Failure to confirm earlier work is likely to arise when the
investigator graduates from the exploratory stage to one where he takes more
care with his work. After an investigator becomes burdened with concern, his
precautions will, presumably, be against error and trickery rather than against
ESP. It may be assumed that any change in his experimental results is due to the
effectiveness of his precautions.
 Ibid., p. 19.
A Revised Approach
At the present time, there are signs that the arguments put forward to support
the work on ESP may be changing. Rhine and Pratt in recent writings imply that
the case for ESP does not, after all, depend on conclusive experiments, but on
general features that emerge from the whole mass of studies, conclusive or
inconclusive; it is as if quantity can make up for quality when the latter has
been found lacking. They write:
The body of fact in parapsychology is like a
many-celled organism. Its strength is that of a growth-relationship, consisting
not only of the compounding of one cell with another, but also of the many
lawful inter-relations that emerge in the growing structure. Going back as
Hansel has done, with a one-cell perspective, to fix attention on some
incomplete stage of development within a single experimental research is hard to
understand in terms of healthy scientific motivation.
 Rhine and Pratt, Journal of Parapsychology
(1961), p. 94.
What is the point of presenting conclusive experiments for the consideration of
the scientific world if they cannot be criticized? How can an experiment be
criticized until it has first been isolated? If experiments are to be considered
en masse, will not data be confused with results such as those obtained with the Creery sisters and Smith and Blackburn? But as soon as criteria by means of
which experiments are selected or rejected are set up, it becomes necessary to
isolate each experiment to see whether it satisfies those criteria.
Moreover, what precisely are the "lawful inter-relationships" within the body of
fact in parapsychology to which Rhine refers. To date, not a single lawful
inter-relationship appears to have been established. How, for example, does
distance affect extrasensory perception? The relationship between scoring rate
and distance is completely chaotic, apparently dependent on the investigator,
the subject, and the experimental conditions. If it were possible to give a
standardized test for ESP to different groups of subjects, systematically
varying factors such as age, nationality, intelligence, previous practice,
distance, and so on, some lawful inter-relationships might eventually be
expected to reveal themselves. But each of the reported investigations yields a
result that has little relationship to any of the others.
Extrasensory perception is not a fact but a theory put forward to account for
observations consisting of high scores obtained during the course of
experiments. Parapsychologists have made such observations under a diversity of
research conditions from which a number of facts emerge. If these facts can be
related to one another by a theory that enables any one to be deducible from
knowledge of the others, that theory has some value and plausibility. By means
of it predictions might be made of what will happen in further experiments so
that it can be put to further test. However, a theory that fails to account for
a variety of facts and that cannot predict what will happen in further tests is
of no value.
If some facts gleaned from the literature on ESP are assembled, they might
appear as follows:
1. Subjects, when attempting to guess card symbols, have obtained scores that
cannot be attributed to chance.
2. Some of those taking part in ESP experiments have indulged in trickery.
3. Subjects who obtain high scores cannot do so on all occasions.
4. Subjects tend to lose their ability to obtain high scores. This loss often
coincides with the termination of an experiment.
5. A successful subject is sometimes unable to obtain high scores when tested by
a critical investigator.
6. Some investigators often observe high scores in the subjects they test;
others invariably fail to observe such scores.
7. A subject may obtain high scores under one set of experimental conditions and
fail to do so under other experimental conditions.
8. No subject has ever demonstrated his ability to obtain high scores when the
test procedure is completely mechanized.
Fact 1 is directly applicable to a hypothesis of the existence of ESP. Fact 2 is
not relevant to such a hypothesis. Facts 3 and 4 are not predictable but could
be said to provide further information about ESP; that is, it appears to be
spasmodic and temporary. The remaining facts (5-8) are not predictable, and in
the case of any other supposed process investigated by psychologists, would
throw doubt on its authenticity. These facts can only be explained by invoking
subsidiary characteristics of ESP.
Again, fact 1 is directly applicable to a hypothesis predicting trickery. Fact 2
demonstrates that such a hypothesis is correct in the case of certain
experiments. The remaining facts (3-4) are all predictable from what is well
known about trickery.
Lawful relationships can readily be seen among the facts when they are
interpreted in accordance with the hypothesis of trickery. Thus, for example,
from fact 7 it might be predicted that those experimental conditions that
eliminate the possibility of trickery will also be the ones in which high scores
do not arise. This is confirmed by fact 8, and also by examining the
experimental conditions under 7 in which high scores have and have not been
Thus the set of facts given above display lawful inter-relationships when
interpreted in terms of the hypothesis of trickery, but they are difficult to
reconcile with a hypothesis based on the existence of ESP.
A number of other facts could be added to the above list to which neither a
hypothesis of ESP nor that of trickery would be applicable. This is to be
expected, since a great deal of research both in parapsychology and elsewhere
has revealed the manner in which high scores can arise through experimental
During the past 85 years, a large number of investigations have been reported,
the majority of which no responsible parapsychologist would claim as having been
designed or intended for the purpose of providing conclusive evidence for ESP.
Only a small number of studies were begun with the intent to provide such
The aim of this book has been to isolate the conclusive experiments and then to
indicate that other explanations than ESP can account for their results. In the
case of each of these conclusive experiments, the result could have arisen
through a trick on the part of one or more of those taking part. In addition,
closer examination of the experiments to see how far the hypothesis of trickery
is consistent with information concerning the experiments in no case invalidates
the hypothesis and in some cases strengthens it.
It cannot be stated categorically that trickery was responsible for the results
of these experiments, but so long as the possibility is present, the experiments
cannot be regarded as satisfying the aims of their originators or as supplying
conclusive evidence for ESP.
A great deal of time, effort, and money has been expended but an acceptable
demonstration of the existence of extrasensory perception has not been given.
Critics have themselves been criticized for making the conditions of a
satisfactory demonstration impossible to obtain. An acceptable model for future
research with which the argument could rapidly be settled one way or the other
has now been made available by the investigators at the United States Air Force
Research Laboratories. If 12 months' research on VERITAC can establish the
existence of ESP, the past research will not have been in vain. If ESP is not
established, much further effort could be spared and the energies of many young
scientists could be directed to more worthwhile research.
The article above was originally titled 'Conclusion'
and was taken from C. E. M. Hansel's "ESP: A Scientific Evaluation" (London:
Charles Scribner's Son, 1966).